Antelope Squirrels Get Ready For Winter

White-tailed antelope squirrel in Joshua Tree National Park | Photo: Jarek Tuszynski/Creative Commons License

Here's a Mojave Desert living pro-tip: don't leave your jackalope on the porch in November. If you do, the antelope squirrels will strip off its fur to line their nests. I found this out the hard way this week when I went out on our back porch to investigate the source of the loud scraping sound that had our cat ready to dive through the screen door. One whole flank of the poor jackalope had been scraped almost raw, and the antelope squirrel who's been trying to move under our porch stood there, hand in the cookie jar, a cotton-ball-sized wad of jackalope fur clutched to its chest.

Similarly sized clumps of fur drifted around the concrete of the porch like the world's cuddliest tumbleweeds. Moving to Joshua Tree has been hard on the jackalope. A strong wind blew it down a couple of months ago, breaking its cedar base. Now, with the squirrely alterations to its pelage, it looks as though it's recovering from an unpleasant round of chemotherapy. It will have to live in the house now, and the cat is very interested. I am not optimistic.

For its part, the jackalope bears its misfortune stoically, an unsurprising response given that it has been dead and stuffed for at least a dozen years.

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The antelope squirrel is persistent and clever. It was attracted from the back of the yard to the porch by my habit of tossing a few handsful of bird seed to the local Gambels quail each morning. It apparently decided a patch of soil inside the porch walls was the perfect spot for a burrow entrance, and I can't say as I blame it. It looks as though the new tunnel runs under the wall and out into the yard again, so the squirrel isn't undermining the foundations. It's merely found a way to have a front door that's protected from birds of prey.

Still, having rodents make nests under my porch isn't something I generally favor. Aside from the mess, there's the public health aspect of living with ground squirrels. They're occasional vectors for hantavirus, and they're also one of the main vectors for bubonic plague in the southwest. My UC Press "Mammals of California" guide by Jameson and Peeters says, laconically, "it is prudent to avoid close contact with wild ground squirrels." So the project of discouraging the antelope squirrel continues.

Antelope squirrels are often mistaken for chipmunks. This is understandable. They're smaller than many other ground squirrels, they're hyperactive in the same fashion as chipmunks, and they have stripes down their backs. Despite the outward similarities to chipmunks, antelope squirrels are actually more closely related to prairie dogs.

There are two species of antelope squirrel native to California. One is an an endangered species, the San Joaquin antelope squirrel, which has been extirpated from most of its historic range. The one currently tormenting my cat through the window is a white-tailed antelope squirrel, Ammospermophilus leucurus. The white-tailed antelope squirrel is widely distributed throughout the western U.S. and all through the Baja California peninsula. It's one of the most-often-seen wild animals in the California desert, though sightings usually involve a tiny bundle of fur scampering across the road a hundred feet in front of your speeding car.

Aside from purloined birdseed and scraps of taxidermy specimens, antelope squirrels mainly make their living eating foliage and seeds obtained honestly. They're not vegans, though. Most antelope squirrels will happily eat the occasional animal smaller than they are. That usually means insects, scorpions, and other arthropods, but it can also include other vertebrates. Small lizards in particular often fall prey to antelope squirrels, as do other rodents. One of the easiest ways to see an antelope squirrel, aside from leaving your jackalope unattended, is to monitor a well-ripened road-killed animal in good desert habitat. Within an hour or so your seeing an antelope squirrel is almost guaranteed.

The squirrels breed once or twice a year, and that's what I fear might happen if I leave the porch nest undisturbed for long. Antelope squirrel babies are usually born in spring, in litters of five to eight, and can remain in the nest for months. In a nice winter burrow protected from predators, romantically lined with soft jackalope fur, I can't imagine the squirrel and his consort having a small litter. Left to their own devices the squirrels might multiply my problem by a factor of ten come next year.

Unsurprisingly, their diminutive stature and abundance means antelope squirrels get eaten by a lot of other animals. Predators from snakes to hawks to bobcats and coyotes harvest their share of the antelope squirrel supply.

With a range of foes like that I can understand why this one wants to move onto my porch. I'm hardening my heart, though. I'd rather not contract the plague until I have health coverage again.

Chris Clarke is an environmental writer of two decades standing. Director of Desert Biodiversity, he writes from Joshua Tree regularly at his acclaimed blog Coyote Crossing and comments on desert issues on KCET weekly. Read his recent posts here.

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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